To obtain greater insight into the future potential of tumor radiotherapy using proton beams generated from high-intensity lasers, it is important to characterize the ionization quality of the new beams by measuring the relative biological effectiveness (RBE) under conditions where the full dose at one irradiation site will be deposited by a few proton pulses less than 1 ns in duration. HeLa cells attached to a Mylar foil were irradiated with 70 kV X rays to obtain a reference dose–response curve or with 3 Gy of 20 MeV protons at the Munich tandem accelerator (Garching), either using a continuous mode where a cell sample was irradiated within a 100-ms time span or using a pulsed mode where radiation was given in a single proton pulse of about 1 ns. After irradiation cytochalasin B was added; 24 h later cells were fixed and stained with acridine orange and micronuclei were counted. The X-ray dose–response curve for the production of micronuclei in HeLa cells followed a linear-quadratic model. The corresponding RBE values for 20 MeV protons in pulsed and continuous irradiation modes were 1.07 ± 0.08 and 1.06 ± 0.10 in the first proton experiment and 1.09 ± 0.08 and 1.05 ± 0.11 in the second, respectively. There was no evidence for a difference in the RBE for pulsed and continuous irradiation of HeLa cells with 20 MeV protons.